It's an age old adage; "this is a make or miss league." Right now, in the tightly contested first round matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, neither team is making their shots at an eminently high rate. Especially their uncontested ones. Per NBA dot com’s SportVU data, the Clippers and Spurs are hovering around the low-to-mid 40 percent mark on uncontested shots in this series. The Clippers are 59-for-134 (44.0 percent) and the Spurs are 61-for-145 (42.1 percent). It’s been an off-and-on trend in this series. The team that hits around 50 percent in a game will win it. The Clippers did that in Game 1, the Spurs did that in Game 2 and Game 3, and the Clippers did it in Game 4. Meanwhile, the opponent was left cold on uncontested shots. So, will this trend continue or will one team finally show up on these shots?
Uncontested shots, according to SportVU’s game data, are listed as any shot a shooter takes when he does not have a defender within his vicinity. That vicinity is considered anywhere within three-and-a-half feet. For the following exercise, we’re going to use a base minimum of four feet. The following table represents how each player on each team did (a) in the regular season on shots with a defender at least 4 feet away according to SportVU and (b) how they’re doing in the playoffs in that same construct. The thing to remember with the playoff numbers is that there is a huge “small sample size alert” type of situation going on here. After all, J.J. Redick began the year horribly from three in his first three contests then turned it around to light it up from the outside. Small sample sizes can sway the numbers hugely so keep some of that in mind.
|REGULAR SEASON||PLAYOFFS||% DIFFERENCE|
|348-for-668 (52.10%)||18-for-29 (62.07%)||+9.97%|
|289-for-573 (50.44%)||11-for-28 (39.29%)||-11.15%|
|158-for-394 (40.10%)||3-for-12 (25.00%)||-15.10%|
|268-for-575 (46.61%)||10-for-29 (34.48%)||-12.13%|
|87-for-103 (84.47%)||5-for-5 (100.00%)||+15.53%|
|140-for-335 (41.79%)||3-for-11 (27.27%)||-14.52%|
|78-for-213 (36.62%)||6-for-11 (54.55%)||+17.93%|
|25-for-83 (30.12%)||1-for-3 (33.33%)||+3.21%|
|1630-for-3507 (46.48%)||59-for-134 (44.03%)||-2.45%|
As you can see in the table above, the Los Angeles Clippers are shooting below their norm on shots that are generally considered wide open. In fact, there are only three players that have considerably improved their open shot making in this series compared to the regular season and those three are Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Austin Rivers. However, as we all know, DeAndre’s open shots are pretty much just wide open dunks that are child’s play for him. So the only two that are markedly improved in the playoffs are Paul and Rivers. You could argue that Rivers’ numbers are heavily influenced by his Game 4 performance, and that pretty much is the case, but that is a healthy percentage increase for him considering he has taken 11 open shots already; i.e. the same amount as Jamal Crawford.
Chris Paul is the real story of this, though. He’s the only reason the Clippers are even making open shots at a 44 percent rate. He’s hitting a ridiculous 62.07 percent of his open shots. A lot of those are jumpers since, as we all know, Paul loves to operate in the mid-range. But the rest of the team is basically down from their seasonal averages by a healthy margin. Despite his performance in Game 4, J.J. Redick is still shooting under 40 percent on wide open shots this series and Matt Barnes is struggling to even find the rim. As for Blake Griffin, he’s down by quite a bit, as well. If not for Chris Paul – and to a lesser degree, Austin Rivers – the Clippers shooting woes would be even more pronounced.
|REGULAR SEASON||PLAYOFFS||% DIFFERENCE|
|158-for-336 (47.02%)||3-for-13 (23.08%)||-23.94%|
|206-for-457 (45.08%)||6-for-20 (30.00%)||-15.08%|
|188-for-405 (46.42%)||19-for-28 (67.86%)||+21.44%|
|98-for-214 (45.79%)||4-for-9 (44.44%)||-1.55%|
|33-for-48 (68.75%)||1-for-2 (50.00%)||-18.75%|
|102-for-286 (35.66%)||4-for-11 (36.36%)||+0.70%|
|85-for-208 (40.87%)||10-for-21 (47.62%)||+6.75%|
|116-for-298 (38.93%)||5-for-19 (26.32%)||-12.61%|
|1358-for-3109 (43.68%)||62-for-146 (42.47%)||-1.21%|
The Spurs are basically in the same sinking boat as the Clippers are this series as far as open shots and percentages go. Like the Clippers, they too are down from their regular season average as a team on open shots and it has hampered them throughout this series. And, like Chris Paul was doing for Los Angeles, Kawhi Leonard has kept the Spurs numbers afloat with a little help from Patty Mills, who has been sensational offensively. However, everyone else is a negative for the most part while Manu Ginobili is at his regular season average with all things considered.
Two things are truly remarkable here. First, Kawhi Leonard is ridiculous. He’s hitting nearly 69 percent of his open shots. That’s an unreal number and is quite a bit higher than what Chris Paul has done in this series so far. One of the things I didn’t mention with Leonard is that he’s also hitting an astounding 69 percent of his shots with a defender within two feet of him in this series. All of those are two point shots but quite a few of them were deep jumpers. Secondly, Danny Green and Tony Parker are down a ton from their regular season marks and that’s pretty much hurting the Spurs at this point in time despite the efforts of both Leonard and Mills. Spurs fans, and their team, have to feel like that will change going forward.
|REGULAR SEASON||PLAYOFFS||% DIFFERENCE|
|115-for-279 (41.22%)||8-for-12 (66.67%)||+25.45%|
|164-for-358 (45.81%)||8-for-19 (42.11%)||-3.70%|
|117-for-330 (35.45%)||3-for-11 (27.27%)||-8.18%|
|73-for-198 (36.87%)||3-for-7 (42.86%)||+5.99%|
|39-for-121 (32.23%)||2-for-4 (50.00%)||+17.77%|
|676-for-1733 (39.00%)||25-for-58 (43.10%)||+4.10%|
First things first; the team is buoyed by Chris Paul’s ridiculous three-point marksmanship this series. If he was even performing at regular season levels on open threes, the team would see their playoff percentage go from 43.10 percent all the way down to 37.93 percent. Austin Rivers, like earlier, has also helped but his sample size is obviously smaller than Paul’s and all but a few other players on the team. The only guys listed are guys who have attempted more than two wide open threes. Hence, the Clippers list is only five players long. One thing to keep in mind here, though, is that Redick’s 42.11 percent is actually only that high because of Game 4. Prior to Sunday’s game, Redick was just 5-for-13 (38.46 percent) on open threes this series. He was 3-for-6 in Game 4 alone. So, perhaps he’s turning a corner.
Speaking of turning a corner, the Clippers desperately need two guys to flip the switch. Those guys being Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford. While Crawford is shooting nearly the same percentage as Redick overall, Crawford’s gone ice cold from three over the last three games of this series. After going 2-for-2 on open threes in Game 1, Crawford’s just 1-for-5 since then. As for Barnes, he’s been abysmal. He went 2-for-3 on open threes in Game 1 but has gone 1-for-8 on them in the last three games. One of the two has to breakout and help the team. It’s going to be hard for the Clippers to win this series with both guys being cold and ineffective offensively on open threes due to the fact it’d allow the Spurs to clamp down even more on the pick-and-roll and not worry about open wing shooters.
|REGULAR SEASON||PLAYOFFS||% DIFFERENCE|
|33-for-75 (44.00%)||0-for-3 (0.00%)||-44.00%|
|165-for-371 (44.47%)||6-for-19 (31.58%)||-12.89%|
|61-for-169 (36.09%)||7-for-10 (70.00%)||+33.91%|
|69-for-211 (32.70%)||3-for-9 (33.33%)||+0.63%|
|51-for-142 (35.92%)||7-for-13 (53.85%)||+17.93%|
|51-for-164 (32.32%)||0-for-9 (0.00%)||-32.32%|
|72-for-193 (37.31%)||4-for-10 (40.00%)||+2.69%|
|46-for-121 (38.02%)||1-for-5 (20.00%)||-18.02%|
|593-for-1574 (37.67%)||28-for-79 (35.44%)||-2.23%|
The Spurs have taken a lot of open threes. A lot. And, like on their other table, we dart our attention right to Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills. Why? Because they’re knocking down open shots at a much higher rate than they did during the regular season. Also like before, Danny Green and Tony Parker are way down from their regular season percentages. In the case of Parker, it’s also an extremely small sample size of just three shots. So it’s understandable that there’s some noise there. With Green, however, he’s just plain missing shots. A lot of them. In Game 3 last Friday night, Green went 2-for-5 on open threes. In the other three games, he’s gone just 4-for-14 (28.57 percent). To say he’s slumping would be an understatement.
As for the rest of their team, some of them are performing right along with their regular marks. Marco Belinelli and Manu Ginobili are pretty much in line with their regular season numbers. Boris Diaw has had a huge drop off but he wasn’t a big time threat anyways. The Clippers have rightfully ignored him as all nine of his three-point attempts this series have seen him being left completely open. Matt Bonner’s only had a handful of attempts but hasn’t hit the mark as often as he did in the regular season. Like they were on just plain open shots, the Spurs are going through a tiny decline on open threes in the playoffs compared to what they did during the year and it has hurt them in their two losses.
WHAT'LL HAPPEN IN THE NEXT THREE GAMES?
Your guess is as good as mine, to be perfectly honest. Each team has struggled to shoot the ball at times in this series. Each team has struggled to shoot the ball in each of their losses. The growing trend of this series has been that whatever team hits their open shots will eventually win the game, even if the game has been generally close throughout. The Clippers were 18-for-36 in Game 1 and won. The Spurs went 20-for-39 in Game 2 and 18-for-40 in Game 3. Both were wins. The Clippers rebounded to shoot 17-for-31 in Game 4 and won. In each victory for each team, they’ve shot above or just about 50 percent on open shots. In the losses, they’ve combined to shoot just 35.34 percent on those same open shots. Whoever hits, wins. However, there are essentially three ways this can go.
SCENARIO A: Over the course of the final three games, the Los Angeles Clippers continue to generate open shots for their shooters – Redick, Barnes, Crawford, and Paul – and see those shots actually go in at a higher rate than they’ve gone in all series long. The increased three-point barrage allows Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan more room to operate inside and gives Chris Paul more room in the mid-range off of the pick-and-roll which leads to a Clippers series victory as the Spurs can’t clamp down on everyone.
SCENARIO B: The Clippers rotational defense gets caught out of whack by the Spurs ball movement, thus giving more open shots to the Spurs than to the Clippers and the Spurs react in kind by hitting those open shots. Danny Green starts to heat up, Kawhi Leonard stays hot, Patty Mills continues to do what he’s doing, and both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili revert back to their glory days of nailing huge shot after huge shot. It leads the Spurs to a series victory as the Clippers routinely get caught of position and can’t do anything about it.
SCENARIO C: Each team stays right on track as far as shooting is concerned and everyone wonders when one team will actually show up enough to steal this series right out from under the nose of the other team. All the major shooters in this series – Redick, Paul, Green, Leonard, etc. – continue to have hot-and-cold moments from beyond the arc, and in general, which leads to an ultracompetitive final three games that sees neither side firmly take control of the series until the final game where one of them ekes out the win but just barely.
This is, by far, the only intriguing series left in the first round. The rest of the round has been a pure mess as far as competitiveness is concerned but this series has been the NBA’s saving grace. No one knows what’s going to happen. We can all speculate as to which team will finally get the ball rolling on open shots and never look back but these are two great teams that are playing. Even shots that are open might not necessarily be open in a player’s mind. Redick has been blanketed by Leonard all series and even on open shots it looks like Redick rushes them and misses. That’s what this series has become. Some guys are playing better than usual, some are playing below the norm, and some are playing right at their expected levels. This is the NBA playoffs. For four games we’ve seen two elite teams trade proverbial punches in an effort to gain some kind of edge. And after four games, there is no edge to be gained. We’re right back to where we started; all even and left wondering which one of these two teams can actually put it together long enough to take this series.
With three games left, the team that hits their open shots will win this series. It seems easy in theory but neither team has been able to sustain that type of offensive capability all series. It’s been on-and-off for each side and been a struggle for both even in games they were controlling. The team that can weather the storm will win this series. And the team that can rise above the small sample sizes to fully take advantage of the shots they’re given will be into the next round having earned their series more than any other team will have to this point. There is, at the maximum, only three games left for one of these great teams. It’s time to see which one can start to get hot in a series that has seen both be so cold.